Murdock v. Pennsylvania (1943)

Murdock involved Jehovah’s Witnesses publicly proselytizing for donations while evangelizing their beliefs, all without paying for a license to do so. The Supreme Court held that such religious practices are fundamental to free exercise:

“We only hold that spreading one’s religious beliefs or preaching the Gospel through distribution of religious literature and through personal visitations is an age-old type of evangelism with as high a claim to constitutional protection as the more orthodox types.”

Equally important, the Court held that the fact that the Witnesses sought small donations for their literature could not deprive them of First Amendment protection:

“But the mere fact that the religious literature is ‘sold’ by itinerant preachers rather than ‘donated’ does not transform evangelism into a commercial enterprise. If it did, then the passing of the collection plate in church would make the church service a commercial project.… It should be remembered that the pamphlets of Thomas Paine were not distributed free of charge. It is plain that a religious organization needs funds to remain a going concern. But an itinerant evangelist, however misguided or intolerant he may be, does not become a mere book agent by selling the Bible or religious tracts to help defray his expenses or to sustain him. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion are available to all, not merely to those who can pay their own way.”